2011 Top 10 Great Public Spaces in America

Great Places! You know them when you see them—but how do they become great? All the decisions we make influence the quality of our neighborhoods, streets, and public spaces.

The Great Public Space designation is part of the American Planning Association (APA) Great Places in America program, which began in 2007 and recognizes unique and exemplary streets, neighborhoods, and public spaces each year.

Fairmount Park, Riverside, California

In the 100 years since the Olmsted Brothers wrote their 1911 plan for “worthless land” on the edge of a quarry, Riverside’s flagship Fairmount Park has gone from premier community park to a center of crime and neglect to a recognized example of excellence in urban park planning and plan implementation.

Garden of the Gods Park, Colorado Springs, Colorado

In 1859 surveyor Rufus Cable came upon the inspiring landscape that is now the crown jewel of Colorado Springs’s park system and proclaimed it “a fit place for the gods to assemble.”

Monument Circle, Indianapolis, Indiana

The center of Indianapolis is Monument Circle, a traffic circle at the intersection of Meridian and Market Streets, featuring the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument. (Credit: circlecityads.com)

Since 1821 when Alexander Ralston laid out the state’s capital in Indianapolis and located “Circle Street” in the middle of the mile square plot, Monument Circle has served as the literal and figurative center of Indianapolis. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument, designed by Bruno Schmitz of Germany, rests at the center of the Circle. There are striking views of the state capitol building and the city from atop a 231-foot-tall observation tower.

Gray’s Lake Park, Des Moines, Iowa

The 1.9-mile walk around Gray’s Lake is known as “doing the loop,” and for some residents it’s a daily ritual that even prairie grass burns, trail repairs, and flooding won’t stop. The iconic, 1,400-foot-long Kruidenier Trail pedestrian bridge over the lake is the park’s most distinguishing feature.

Rice Park, St. Paul, Minnesota

Rice Park is a counterpoint to its busy surroundings. Its period lamps, statuary, benches, center fountain, and adjacent national landmark buildings lend a European feeling to the space. Trapezoidal in shape with two diagonal walkways, the park serves as a lunch stop, festival grounds, and outdoor sanctuary. Rice Park has undergone far-reaching changes since its establishment in 1849, when Minnesota was still a territory.

Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, Nashville, Tennessee

Created to commemorate Tennessee’s 200th anniversary, the 19-acre Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park was planned, designed, and built as a concise reflection of the state’s geography, history, people, and musical legacy. Tuck-Hinton Architects in Nashville designed the park, modeling the former landfill site after the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Fair Park, Dallas, Texas

Fair Park combines City Beautiful Movement planning influences with the country’s largest collection of 1930s Art Deco architecture. “A wonderful place to spend a Saturday afternoon exploring … art and architecture,” says Eddie Hueston, former Fair Park executive general manager. Attractions on its 277 acres include eight museums, six performance facilities, and a major sports stadium.

Maymont, Richmond, Virginia

Maymont is a 100-acre American estate, an extraordinary gift given to the city by James and Sallie Dooley who lived here from 1893 to 1925. Whether strolling in the gardens, touring the mansion or watching river otters play, there is something for everyone to enjoy. (Credit: tripadvisor.com)

This striking Gilded Age mansion is surrounded by 100 acres of undulating lawn, manicured gardens, and an arboretum with 200 species of trees from six continents. Maymont continues as its original owners Major James and Sallie May Dooley intended: an extraordinary gift to Richmond for all to enjoy freely.

Point Defiance Park, Tacoma, Washington

Authors of the park’s original 1911 master plan noted that the area’s vistas were “as beautiful as views over land and water as can be seen in this or foreign lands” and found the mountainscape” toward the great Olympic range with its snow-capped peaks glistening in the sunshine … to be equal to view[s] in Italy and the Mediterranean.”

Milwaukee RiverWalk, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Milwaukee RiverWalk was planned as a down-to-earth public space where residents could take peaceful walks, dine outdoors, and access the river for fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. It has been more successful than anyone involved with the unique public-private initiative ever imagined.


American Planning Association (APA)

The American Planning Association (APA) is an independent, not-for-profit educational organization that provides leadership in the development of vital communities.

Website: planning.org

Note: This is the first of a three-part series on the American Planning Association (APA) Great Places in America program.

Part 2: 2011 Top 10 Great Neighborhoods in America

Part 3: 2011 Top 10 Great Streets in America

Worth Pondering…
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